Renaissance brain illustration: the first realistic views (Strasbourg, 1517)

Department of Neuroscience, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, USA
lswanson AT

The first naturalistic, printed views of the brain are found in a broadside published by Johann Schott of Strasbourg in 1517, and then bound into two books on surgery, Hans von Gersdorff’s Feldtbüch der Wundtartzney (1517, Schott: Straszburg) and Lorenz Fries’s Spiegel der Artzney (1518, Grieninger, Strassburg). The most intriguing question raised by this event is: why were the brilliant achievements typified by the naturalistic painting, sculpture, and architecture of Early Renaissance Florence not applied for a century or more to anatomy, and to medicine in general? As background, the history of schematic and naturalistic brain illustration to 1517 is briefly outlined, followed by physical and conceptual descriptions of the Schott fugitive sheet—which contains a dissected torso reminiscent of Mantegna’s St. Sebastian (c1455-60), surrounded by six small figures illustrating Mondino’s (c. 1316) method of dissecting the head. Garrison wrote that, “no one can study these drawings without sensing a sudden leap forward in the power of observation.” (1969, p. 34); Choulant noted that “The anatomy…is much superior to any anatomic illustrations then known. The manner of representation is peculiar [original], especially the anatomy of the brain, which has been treated in a wholly new and exceptional fashion.” (Chouland/Frank 1962, p. 132); and Herrlinger went so far as to opine that the “illustration is just as modern in its basic conception as the contemporary illustrations of Leonardo.” (1970, p. 64). Circumstances surrounding the creation of this anatomical illustration are then described (the first public dissection conducted in Strasbourg—on a hanged criminal by the learned physician Wendelin Hock, with drawings by Dürer’s most illustrious student, Hans Balding, and woodblocks cut by a possible student of Hans Holbein the Elder, Hans Wächtlin), followed by a history of published variants of the plate, which essentially became iconic. Finally, the original question is addressed from at least one then contemporary perspective: whether or not anatomical illustrations actually do more harm than good.

Invited Lecture.  
Thursday, 21 June 2007, 11:45 am - 12:30 pm

12th Annual Meeting of the International Society for the History of the Neurosciences   (ISHN)
Los Angeles, California, USA, 19-23 June 2007